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Jamaica – quite the country of contrasts! It should be an island of outstanding natural beauty and whilst it does have some beautiful landscapes the island is marred by a lack of respect for the environment and, in parts, an almost total lack of infrastructure.
Wild and beautiful landscapes are being systematically destroyed by trash – huge piles of trash. Trash on the beaches – trash washed up in the seaweed and trash draped across the otherwise lovely mountainous countryside. Thankfully there are a few pristine spots (either government operated or maintained by tourist hotels) but at times it felt like the island would simply sink under the weight of its abandoned plastic bottles, foam take-out boxes and plastic bags slung into the undergrowth or onto the sand.
We landed in Kingston, picked up a one-way rental car from Island Rentals (to be returned to Montego Bay airport) and set off across the winding mountain pass from Kingston to Annotto Bay on one of Jamaica’s most lauded scenic routes – the A3. You don’t get much time to acclimatize to the roads in Jamaica. There are no-go areas which you have to avoid almost immediately upon leaving the airport – enclaves and ghettos into which even the police don’t venture. Once out of the main city the route certainly made for an interesting drive!
There is a certain stereotype we Brits have of Jamaicans since many of their countrymen live in the UK and have done since the 1950’s. Chilled out to the point of horizontal, friendly and in absolutely no rush to do anything unless it’s to light up a joint 😉 Obviously I jest but there is a certain laidback national characteristic which isn’t entirely unjustified compared to, for example, the average Brit or American, come to that.
By the time we arrived on the northern coast an hour and a half later, however, we can safely say that we had been completely disavowed of our previous impressions of the Jamaican national psyche.
Put a Jamaican male (regardless of age) behind the wheel of a vehicle and he’s not horizontally chilled out at all. On the contrary he actually becomes Lewis Hamilton with a death wish. The mountain road from Kingston to the north coast was long, steep, and winding. Large parts of it had collapsed or completely sunk into deep craters and yet the locals – whether driving cars, trucks or large overloaded lorries – navigated the blind bends and switchbacks at speeds you might expect on an empty US interstate at 2 in the morning. Didn’t matter which side of the road they were supposed to be driving on – if a crater/animal or other obstacle was in their path they would veer over at full pelt into our oncoming lane. If it weren’t for the stress of the psychotic driving all around us it might have been a far more pleasant scenic drive with the rainforest cascading down the mountainsides around us. As it was, our main concern was not cascading down the mountainside in our rental car along with the local exotic plant life.
At quieter spots along the way we had time to briefly enjoy the scenes of Jamaican countryside life passing through small settlements with roadside shacks selling fruit and vegetables. Some shacks were constructed more substantially from wooden slats and others were little more than tables with tarpaulin roof covers. Jamaica is a very fertile land and oranges, papaya and yams grow in abundance. Other stalls were selling row upon row of unidentifiable mismatched bottled liquids which looked suspiciously like hooch – probably lethal – and if not actually lethal – then certainly the kind which would rot your teeth to stumps with a few sips.
By the time we made it to the north coast at Annotto Bay and turned right towards our final destination of Port Antonio, Geoff was already completely exhausted and we’d only been on the road for an hour and 45 minutes. By the time we made it to Geejam Hotel another 75 minutes east on the coast road we had used 8 of our 9 lives in near-misses. My task as navigator included not just directions but also warnings of imminent danger: “Crater left … crater right … pig left … pig right … chicken left … chicken right … human left … TRUUUUCK!! etc etc”. This became my mantra for most of the vacation whilst we were on the roads. It was pretty tiring driving – but it was equally knackering looking out for obstacles in our path. It was a miracle we didn’t suffer whiplash from all of the emergency stops and sharp turns. As we left the paved road of Port Antonio town behind us on the final stretch to Geejam the infrastructure plummeted to new depths of dreadful. We spent the last 20 minutes on a dusty, rock-scattered dirt track wondering if this would be the vacation which would finally kill us 😉
Port Antonio itself is off the beaten track, to be fair. It is considered to be the most beautiful, untouched and authentic region on the island. Unpolluted by all-inclusive hotels and crime.
One of the highlights of the Port Antonio area includes Geejam Hotel itself. It is a modern hotel famous for its recording studio and it has played host to an array of supremely famous bands who use its facilities and hang out in the sun for a while. For the rest of us more ordinary mortals it is a relaxing hotel on a hillside with friendly and accommodating staff. There is a small swimming pool, a bar and restaurant overlooking the bay.
We arrived to discover that UK band Coldplay had just checked out whilst we were dicing with death and bouncing through the craters on the A3 crossing the mountain pass. I’m willing to bet that they took Geejam’s private helicopter back to Kingston airport which, with hindsight, was a bargain at $3000 for a 20 minute flight. Obviously, the fact that I had just missed a close encounter with Chris Martin was most distressing but the welcome cocktail at check-in went some way to ease the disappointment 😉
Whilst I wandered off to explore the grounds and check out the tiny beach on the waterfront of the bay, Geoff got chatting to one of the co-owners who mentioned a raft of world famous rappers who had availed themselves of his facilities (none of whom I’d heard of due to my advanced years and total disinterest in rapping). Apparently he wasn’t allowed to mention due to strict Non-Disclosure Agreements (obviously not that strict) that The Rolling Stones may (or may not!) have also have stayed there. At least there was a band I’d heard of!
Given their joint interest in music, he recommended that Geoff might appreciate Vinyl Sunday at Draper’s bar a few miles down the dirt track towards Port Antonio. It transpired that 8pm was about 4 hours too early to enjoy the evening’s entertainment at its best. The DJ is an Italian who (inexplicably) left his homeland to start anew in Jamaica. Because he loved to share his exhaustive record collection of Ska and Reggae music he played his records there every Sunday night on a couple of elderly-looking turntables. It was quiet at 8pm (aside from the music which blared across the neighborhood). The air was filled with marijuana and we were entertained by watching someone’s grandma boogying enthusiastically to Bob. I have to admit there’s nothing more authentic than listening to the strains of Bob Marley in Jamaica whilst wafts of weed drifted in our direction. Bob was iconic and his untimely death was a great loss to the music world.
There were a few minor issues with staying at Geejam. It is the only upmarket hotel in the entire eastern region of the island so it doesn’t have to try too hard. Food and beverage supplies were drastically inconsistent from day to day and from morning to evening. One day there was granola for breakfast but no oat milk – another day – no granola but plenty of oat milk. The next day you might be offered granola again but by the time the order made it to the kitchen it was out of stock across the whole island – indefinitely – along with bread – also indefinitely. The Rumba rooms were great – very contemporary and themed around the music industry which was why I booked the hotel. Occasionally, however, the water cut out mid-shower or didn’t work at all. The pool is very small for the number of rooms at the hotel and it was a daily battle to grab any time to relax in the sun on the sun loungers because there were only 3 sun loungers for the entire hotel. First world problems but irksome none the less.
Still … our plan was to be out and about exploring for our 4/5 days in Portland Parish – not lounging about enjoying the view over the Caribbean sipping Ting a Ling rum cocktails by the pool.
On the plus side, the office staff, bar and restaurant staff were efficient, super friendly and very happy in their work. And if we were lucky enough to bag one of the sun loungers, the view over the water enjoyed with a chilled cocktail in hand might have contributed to our general sense of wellbeing. We played pool at the open-air pool table most nights which was quite an achievement after a few Ting a Lings. Life was good.
One of the reasons I had chosen to make the trip to Port Antonio was its proximity to Frenchman’s Cove Beach – rated one of the top beaches on the island. We hadn’t had time to exchange our US dollars for Jamaican dollars when we landed on the island but we had plenty of US dollars. We assumed we wouldn’t get too royally robbed on the exchange rate – how wrong we were!
There is an entrance fee to Frenchman’s Cove because it is privately controlled. When we arrived at the gate it was either 3000 Jamaican dollars for 2 or 30 US dollars. This is quite a hefty exchange rate given that 3000 Jamaican dollars is actually worth less than 20 US dollars. Not going to break the bank of course but still irritating so we drove 5 minutes back to the hotel where the manageress kindly raided her piggy bank to find us some local currency which was very accommodating of her.
Frenchman’s Cove beach is tiny but beautiful – a pristine cove with clear blue water and surrounded by rainforest with cliffs draped in vines. A freshwater stream runs across the back of the beach into which you can dip your toes whilst idly contemplating the beauty of the bay from the rope swing attached to a tree limb in the undergrowth. Tip – go before 10am for perfect light and to avoid the inevitable people soup by late morning.
The following day we decided to brave the treacherous dirt tracks which pass for roads in this region of East Portland Parish and took a coastal drive further east. I had 2 purposes in mind.
Firstly, I wanted to try out the famed jerk BBQ fish at the Boston Jerk Center and, secondly, I wanted to explore some of the other recommended beaches in this part of the island – considerably off the normal beaten track of the average tourist to Jamaica.
The artist in me was attracted to the Jerk Centre because it was colorful. Boston, Jamaica is renowned as the birthplace of jerk pork (which wasn’t on the menu for us non-meat eaters, of course!). As soon as we parked the car we were accosted on all sides by owners of the various establishments trying to tempt us in with their identical culinary offerings. It was hard to know which way to turn but in the end we succumbed to the most persistent who all but kidnapped us – a local by the name of Shane – notable for his gold toothed smile. We were hustled down into the bowels of Shane’s Gold Teeth Jerk Centre shack where acrid smoke from the burning charcoal of the pimento tree filled the seating area. It seared our eyeballs and permeated our clothes to this day. Goodness knows how anyone works in that toxic environment but thankfully the silver foil wrapped snapper and veggies were served promptly. It was good – maybe not $60 good – but we were, by this stage, fully aware that we were going to be fleeced by every single Jamaican businessman we met. It is barely worth mentioning that the locals (who compromise 99% of the business in Shane’s establishment) were likely paying closer to $6 since $60 would have been a month’s wages but we went with the flow for the experience …
Once we’d eaten lunch we continued onwards to explore the beaches further afield.
Boston beach right by the Jerk Centre was considerably cheaper to visit than Frenchman’s Cove but it became abundantly clear that you get what you pay for in Jamaica. In reality you usually get a lot less than you pay for – unless it comes to beaches! The sand and the iridescent blue water were lovely but there were 6 foot high by 10 foot deep piles of seaweed at the back of Boston beach. The whiff of warm, rotting debris permeated the air and we barely made it 3 feet from the car before turning around.
Onwards towards Long Bay with higher hopes. The coastal drive itself is attractive – there are cliffs with crashing waves, small coves and beaches and ultramarine waters. The problem with the Jamaican countryside and the entire coast in Portland Parish itself is that its natural beauty has been inexcusably trashed. There are rusting cars, disintegrating fridges abandoned on the sand and mountains of plastic waste and bottles bobbing about in the surf or caught up in piles of seaweed.
Long Bay beach should have been spectacular with its long swathe of white sand and teal waters but it was utterly destroyed by clods of thick seaweed filled with plastic trash, discarded take-out containers and abandoned beer bottles. God knows what this level of pollution is doing to the local fish stocks. We saw many spear fishermen hauling their catch up the road to sell to the jerk centre and restaurants. The ocean is their livelihood. The villagers rely on the ocean for their sustenance but they seem oblivious to the mess around them. Maybe the government doesn’t offer trash collection – I don’t know – but it’s a tragic mess in need of an urgent solution.
As we continued glumly driving along the coast road trash billowed about in the breeze. Still, the local pigs were very happy truffling around in the leftovers and rolling in muddy puddles.
A highlight of the Port Antonio region is lunch at Cynthia’s on Winnifred’s Beach famous for its beach shacks and bars and Cynthia’s restaurant, in particular. There was another small entrance fee to enter the beach which apparently went towards the general upkeep and maintenance of the beach by the local residents. It’s a popular beach with backpackers – clearly they were oblivious to the fact that they were swimming in trash-filled waters. Maybe they were too stoned to notice. Frankly, I wouldn’t have stayed for the beach if you’d have paid me but the bars were very photogenically colorful once you’d picked your way through the plastic water bottles. I sound like a stuck record – it was yet another shameful waste of a place which could be pristine and lovely if anyone actually cared enough to clean it up.
Back to the purpose of our visit – lunch at Cynthia’s. She invited us into her kitchen to choose what we wanted for lunch since there wasn’t anything so formal as a printed menu nor any indication of pricing. She cooks over an open fire – there was no stove nor oven. Whilst waiting for whatever Cynthia had decided she would prepare for us, we inadvertently frittered an entire afternoon at her bar shooting the breeze with a local. We covered politics, football and life in general as we waited for lunch. A couple of other Jamaicans wandered in and joined in the conversation. They were a father and son on holiday from a suburb of Montego Bay. The son was knocking back homemade rum which he surreptitiously tipped into a can of coke from time to time – a limp spliff dangling from the right side of his mouth. Over the course of the next hour he became more and more animated and incoherently blotto. His father was a very jolly elderly man who was desperate to talk to us about life in England as his brother had emigrated there years back. Unfortunately, his Jamaican patois was so strong that even with a combined effort we only managed to pick up about 10% of what he was saying. Still, he was happily chatting away and occasionally burst into peels of hearty laughter which we took as our cue to laugh along with him 😉
Since Winnifred’s beach was so dirty we headed back to Frenchman’s for a $20 late afternoon dip amongst the afternoon throngs.
One of the other advantages of staying at Geejam was its accessibility to Cocoa Walk Bay where we swam and kayaked with Geejam’s resident environmental guide who took us out to explore the coral beds. We saw turtles munching on sea grasses and sulfur hot springs in the bay. The sulfur created a strangely oily-looking surface and if you dangled your arm into the water it was noticeably warmer under the water than on the surface. The bay was dotted with colorful fishing boats moored in the harbor and the rainforest reflected emerald green into the sea. We learnt that spear fishing had been prevalent there too and that lack of education was killing the reefs because the fishermen stood on the coral to fish. He explained that lack of general education also caused the overwhelming majority of the pollution problems on the island because no one cared enough to find a solution to satisfactory trash disposal. Quite disheartening. Still, the reef here at Geejam was protected and, as a result, was recovering from its former abuse and is now in reasonable shape.
The following day we took another day trip way out into the boonies of East Portland Parish to Reach Falls. The journey was beautiful. We headed into the Blue Mountains (of coffee fame) through the countryside, farmland and various settlements. For no particular reason we chose to visit the government-operated side of Reach Falls as opposed to the locals-operated side of the waterfalls. Given the slick, slippery rocks and slimy undergrowth that we had to navigate to reach the pools further upriver I suspect that we made the right choice because the locals side involved a much longer hike through the rainforest. At the base of the falls we employed the services of Omar – a government employed lifeguard – who would hold your clammy hand and guide you through the undergrowth for a tip. Well worth the additional $20 we paid him not to break our necks by taking a wrong route. To be honest the main waterfall itself wasn’t quite as spectacular as I was expecting but swimming in the cool, clear river water and floating in the emerald pools made up for it. Of course one of the reasons swimming (albeit upstream) was by far the better option than hiking alongside the river over the rocks was that the voracious mosquitoes in the undergrowth were larger than vultures. It was a shame that the river water was not the requisite 85F for Geoff to follow my lead – hence – he chose to pad across the rocks and slippery moss whilst providing lunch for the hungry mosquitoes. To add insult to injury he lost both soles of his ancient water shoes. We navigated as far as the famed Rabbit Hole cave. I chickened out and took the back route and swam into the Rabbit Hole … there was no way I was jumping down a shoulder-width gap in the rocks to descend into the deep, dark abyss. Back at the main waterfall Geoff finally conceded it was safer under the water and jumped into the chilly river in an effort to soothe his many spectacularly impressive bug bites.
Jamaica is well-known for its wild waterfalls. I had planned to visit YS Falls once we reached the west of the island which I suspect would have been more dramatic but we never made it – mainly due to laziness but also weary of the many near-death experiences on the roads courtesy of the insane driving.
On the matter of food before leaving Port Antonio – restaurants of note in the area are as follows.
Bushbar at Geejam (assuming they have the ingredients to make what’s actually offered on the menu). Their coconut shrimp curry was passable. Breakfast was always an experience. The view from the tables in the restaurant was spectacular – looking out over miles of rainforest punctuated with ackee trees with their bright red/orange fruits and giant breadfruit trees with their vivid yellow flowers and grapefruit-sized breadfruit. We watched green parakeets and hummingbirds flitting amongst the tropical pink and red flowers. It was all quite idyllic. On the first morning at Geejam we decided to go native (so to speak) and ordered the Jamaican breakfast option which was swordfish and ackee with boiled cabbage, fried plantains, pumpkin and a variety of unusual bread options. We learnt that ackee is actually deadly poisonous if not prepared properly so breakfast came with a frisson of excitement – all washed down with some of the best coffee in the world – Blue Mountain Coffee – from the Blue Mountains just a few miles away. At least they never had a justifiable excuse to run out of coffee 😉
We also ate dinner at Wilke’s Seafood in town – again some vital ingredients seemed to be missing for a fish restaurant – like fish – but they cobbled together a vegetable coconut curry which was excellent.
The culinary highlight of Port Antonio was Soldier Camp Bar and Grill where I was plied with Green Ginger Wine (an alcoholic beverage I’ve not seen since the 1970’s lurking at the back of my parents drinks cabinet). The restaurant is decorated with flags and military memorabilia and is owned by a retired Jamaican US army soldier. It was definitely more on the rustic side – but his vegetable coconut curry was undoubtedly the best in town – if not on the entire island.
Trendier Roots 21 was also good but not quite as atmospheric as the rustic privately operated restaurants.
After 5 nights at Geejam it was time to cross the top of the island via Montego Bay to the far west – to Negril beach. We were staying a short drive further on at The Cliff Hotel on West End Road. The drive across the island took 6 hours but at least once we had left Portland Parish the roads were paved in tarmac again instead of chunks of rubble. We stopped en route at Sankar Crabs Seafood Bar in Saltmarsh for lunch which started well and went rapidly downhill. It’s an attractive, colorful fish shack on the beach with beautiful clear water and white sand. We watched a fishing boat arrive with 3 local fishermen who brought their catch to Sankar. The shack attracts mainly locals and the odd passing tourist. We placed our order with the server who explained options and prices (no actual written menu or written pricing of course!) and the owner started to bring out lunch. Some of it we hadn’t ordered at all which was confusing. Some items we had ordered were missing and failed to turn up. When we finally got the bill it was twice the price that the server had quoted and included all of the things we hadn’t ordered and didn’t eat. Tired of being so blatantly financially abused we refused to pay the bill and offered what we expected instead. It could have got nasty but the owner knew the game of “fleece the tourist” was up and conceded.
After dodging the crazy drivers and the suicidal wildlife all day en route to Negril we were fit for nothing after check-in but flopping at the bar on the cliffs watching the sunset over the Caribbean.
In fact we were fit for little else for the remaining 6 days of the Christmas vacation. The Cliff was built into the black coral cliffs just west of Rick’s famous cafe. Service was impeccable and friendly just as it had been at Geejam. The pool was beautiful but we couldn’t draw ourselves away from our vantage point on the cliffs overlooking the sea listening to the waves crashing onto the coral headland. The property aims for privacy and tranquility and each pair of sun loungers and umbrella was set on its own individual raised walkway on the coral. There was a natural seawater swimming pool with tiny fish and crabs scuttling across the rocks but the real joy was jumping off the cliffs into the warm azure Caribbean, floating aimlessly amongst the fish and climbing the ladder back out again – to repeat – ad infinitum. It was exactly what we needed. The bar staff provided a constant supply of desperately overpriced chilled beverages and snacks but at least we didn’t have to move or disturb our tanning to go in search of food.
I did insist, however, that we left the grounds of The Cliff to check out Negril’s 7 Mile Beach (which isn’t in reality 7 miles in length). I also wanted to try Miss Lily’s famous Red Stripe battered fried fish sandwich on coco bread with spicy pickles and red bonnet mayo. It was so good we had to go twice. Miss Lily’s is part of Skylark Resort right on the sand on Negril beach. If you turn up for lunch at Miss Lily’s you can use the hotel’s sun loungers and sun shades for free for the day. Seemed like a great deal!
The water was absolutely calm on the first day we visited. Clear and very warm and whilst Geoff reclined with his beer I wandered the length of the beach checking out the resorts and the general ambience. The sand and the water were lovely (not so much on the second visit when a windy day churned up the water to silt) but Negril is incredibly touristy and overcrowded. This is the premier beach destination on the island (Montego Bay is more geared towards all-inclusive and family resorts). I’m pleased that we chose the cliffside destination rather than staying on the beach. The Cliff was a lot more upmarket overall.
Truth be told I’m surprised Geoff can remember anything of our full day on Negril beach. He didn’t make it to lunch (which is why we had to return a second time so he could sample Miss Lily’s famous fish sandwich). There are a number of beach vendors wandering up and down the sand plying their dubious wares. It seemed from a distance that Negril’s most popular Rastafarian vendor sold handmade bead bracelets. He was doing quite the roaring trade in beads … who knew so many people needed an emergency bracelet on the beach?!
What he was actually selling, of course, was ganja in its many and varied comestible forms – one of which was a “brownie”. Geoff’s ears pricked up as said Rasta wandered past Skylark bellowing his offerings. Despite my protestations he hot-footed it down the beach with cash in hand to check out the brownies. I’d already been hassled by this guy first thing in the morning when I was walking the beach. His pupils were no bigger than pinheads and he could barely stand upright even then.
A few minutes later Geoff returned without his cash and told me the guy was going to get him a brownie for $40. Seemed expensive for a slice of cake but that’s Jamaica for you! Some time passed and he didn’t return either with the brownie or the cash … hmmm … Eventually he sauntered back up the beach towards us – unmissable in his lurid green stripy socks and multi-colored Rasta tam perched precariously on his head. Geoff darted off again. He returned shortly with $20 change from his $100 bill and 2 slices of brownie. Apparently the seedy Rasta wouldn’t sell him one. It was two or nothing. I’d have chosen nothing but apparently that didn’t appeal. I’d have argued with the stoned Rasta but apparently Geoff didn’t think it prudent to argue with a drugs dealer 😉. Unimpressed on many levels I left him to his own devices and went for a swim. Sometime later I returned for lunch to find him crashed out on the sun lounger, looking quite the worse for wear and incapable of rational conversation. It seems that when the Rasta told him that it was enough for two he meant each brownie was enough for two. Geoff ate a whole brownie in one go. I had hoped to avoid taking the steering wheel at all in Jamaica but it transpired that there was absolutely no alternative. He slept for 18 hours and threw the other brownie away! $80 not very well spent 😉 I’m going to take a wild guess that eating a brownie supplied by a dodgy Rasta on a Caribbean beach is unlikely to be repeated.
Since we were really too lazy to leave the hotel we ate dinner most nights at The Cliff’s own restaurant – Zest. The views from the terrace at sunset were spectacular as expected and the food was good. Blue Mahoe, a few minutes drive away, was highly-rated but with hindsight we have no idea why. It was distinctly average. Rockhouse was absolutely beautiful and far superior.
Zest tried very hard to entertain its guests every evening with live music at sunset. On Christmas day we endured the worst band in living history which made for an amusing (if excruciating) auditory experience. No sense of harmony nor coordination whatsoever – it were as if 3 miscellaneous members of the public had been picked off the street, dragged into the hotel and forced to perform. From the ridiculous to the sublime – they were followed by Rastafarian solo singer Pinky Dread on Boxing Day who did a remarkable job of sounding very like Bob Marley. He was absolutely brilliant. Exactly what you want to hear when you’re in Jamaica sipping cocktails at sunset and humming along to Bob’s most famous songs.
Would we return to Jamaica? We had a great time exploring and some interesting experiences but it wouldn’t be first on the list for a return trip. Having said that, if all you need of a week’s vacation in the sun is an attractive hotel and somewhere to hang out in the peace and quiet then The Cliff might just fit the bill.
Categories: Boston, Caribbean, Jamaica, Negril, Port Antonio, Portland Parish, Travel
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